Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Of course, I love trying new baking recipes especially when I get to play with nonstandard ingredients. And, I really love it when I get to try making treats that are sweetened with things other than refined sugar. I bake fewer sweet things than I used to, and I mostly avoid refined sugar except on special occasions. I’ve had some mixed results with this type of baking. A honey-sweetened carrot cake and some maple syrup-sweetened cookies that I baked were really far better on the first day than the second. And, a vegan, date-sweetened caramel I tried didn’t deliver the thrill of traditional caramel. So, I was cautiously excited to try the recipes in the new book Sweet Laurel by Laurel Gallucci and Claire Thomas of which I received a review copy. I wanted to love the flavors, and I really wanted the recipes to work well. After being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune digestive disorder, Laurel Gallucci became committed to creating delicious baked good with no grains, gluten, dairy, or refined sugar. She and her friend Claire opened the bakery Sweet Laurel to showcase these creations. They offer “indulgent yet healthful” treats made with the simplest ingredients. No gums, fillers, or soy is used in the recipes. In fact, all the ingredient lists are surprisingly short. The chapters cover quick breads and breakfast treats, cookies and bars, pies and tarts, layer cakes, fillings and icings, and decorating techniques. I quickly zeroed in on the doughnuts with various glazes. They’re baked doughnuts made with almond flour, coconut oil, eggs, and maple syrup, and the glaze options include chocolate, strawberry, turmeric lemon, and coconut butter icing. Then, there are Classic Snickerdoodles, and the only reason I haven’t baked them yet is because I would eat every one of them. The Zesty Lime Pie and the Caramel Chocolate Banana Cream Pie are both strongly tempting me as well. Among the cakes, there are classics like the The Chocolate Cake That Changed Everything that inspired the friends to open the bakery and an old-school Pineapple Upside-Down Cake with pieces of blood orange standing in for the usual maraschino cherries. I couldn’t wait to get baking, and my first recipe from the book was the Alfajores that happen to be vegan as well as grain-free and free of refined sugar. 

There are three parts to this recipe, and each can be made in advance to make the final assembly a bit quicker. First, I made the Shredded Coconut “Powdered Sugar” topping. Rather than sifting actual powdered sugar over the cookies, these are topped with pulverized, unsweetened coconut that looks like powdered sugar. The coconut was blitzed in a food processor until fine. Next, I made the Vegan Caramel filling. I opted to puree the ingredients in a blender for the smoothest possible texture, but a food processor could also be used. Almond butter, maple syrup, coconut oil, dates, vanilla, and a pinch of salt were pureed until smooth. It seemed like a nice, thick mixture for filing the cookies, but next time I will take the suggestion of adding two more dates to make it a bit thicker. The cookies couldn’t have been easier. The dough was a quick mix of almond flour, a little salt, melted coconut oil, and maple syrup. That’s it. The dough was placed between two big sheets of parchment paper and was rolled out to about an eighth of an inch thickness. Small rounds were cut and baked. While cooling, the cookies were dusted with powdered coconut. Once cool, half of them were flipped and topped with vegan caramel before being sandwiched. 

Above, I mentioned some other lackluster, vegan caramel I had tried in the past. This was not that. This vegan caramel had all of the yummy factor I expect from caramel. I could have sat down with the bowl of it and a spoon. Next time, I will make it a little thicker so the cookies can withstand more filling without sliding apart. And, the deliciousness remained for these cookies the second day and the day after that. I can’t wait to bake more things from this book.

Reprinted from Sweet Laurel: Recipes for Whole Food, Grain-Free Desserts. Copyright © 2018 by Laurel Gallucci and Claire Thomas. Photography by Claire Thomas. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. 

Our favorite coffee shop is just blocks from where we grew up, and one of its featured treats is the alfajore, a melt-in-your-mouth Argentinian sandwich cookie. Traditionally made with shortbread, dulce de leche, and an abundance of powdered sugar, it’s the perfect cookie to pair with a cup of strong South American coffee. In our version, we switch out the dulce de leche for our vegan caramel, and coat the cookies in our coconut powdered sugar. Don’t forget to brew a pot of coffee! 

2 cups almond flour 
1⁄8 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt 
1⁄4 cup coconut oil, melted 
1⁄4 cup maple syrup 
Shredded Coconut “Powdered Sugar” for topping 
Vegan Caramel, for filling 

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. In a small bowl, combine the coconut oil and maple syrup. A little at a time, add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring until a dough comes together. 
3. Place the dough between two pieces of parchment paper and roll it about 1⁄8 inch thick. Remove the top piece of paper and, using a 1 1⁄2-inch round cookie cutter, cut the dough into circles and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, until the edges begin turning golden brown. Transfer the cookies to a rack, dust heavily with “powdered sugar,” and cool completely while you prepare the vegan caramel. 
4. Gently spread 1 to 2 teaspoons of vegan caramel onto a cooled cookie, then sandwich together with another cookie. Repeat with the remaining cookies and serve. Store in a sealed container at room temperature for up to 5 days, or in the freezer indefinitely. 

Vegan Caramel 
We believe our early success has a lot to do with this recipe. There have been vegan caramel super fans since day one (seriously, one guy has a weekly order), and once you try it, you’ll know why. You’ll see it pop up in a few recipes in this cookbook, but we won’t judge if you eat this straight out of the jar with a spoon! Our favorite way of serving it is on top of sliced bananas, or with a piece of dark chocolate. You can buy ours at sweetlaurel.com, but here’s our secret recipe. 

1⁄4 cup almond or cashew butter or puree, storebought or homemade 
1⁄4 cup maple syrup 
2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted 
1 or 2 fresh dates, pitted 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract Pinch of Himalayan pink salt 

1. Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. 2. Transfer the caramel to a glass jar and place in the refrigerator to chill. The caramel will stiffen up in the refrigerator, so if your recipe calls for it to be spreadable, let the caramel sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour, and give it a good stir before using. The caramel will keep for about 1 month, refrigerated. 

Shredded Coconut “Powdered Sugar” 
Makes 1/4 cup 

1⁄4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut 
2 teaspoons arrowroot powder 

1. In a food processor, blend the coconut and arrowroot until a fine powder forms. 
2. Sift the mixture over the doughnuts, generously dusting each, then serve.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Strawberry Sorbet

I know what you’re thinking: strawberry sorbet, so what? But wait, this is an exciting strawberry sorbet. There’s a whole lemon in it. And, I don’t mean the juice of a whole lemon, I mean a whole lemon plus more juice. When I read that in the recipe, I knew I had to try it. But before I get into specifics about the sorbet, I have to tell you about the book where the recipe is found. It’s from River Cafe London: Thirty Years of Recipes and the Story of a Much-Loved Restaurant: A Cookbook, and I received a review copy. I love the story of River Cafe, and congratulations to them on their 30th anniversary. This new book offers a fresh look at their classic recipes and how they’ve been refined over the years along with several new dishes. Regarding the look of the book itself, I fell for it immediately with the pretty, bright pink pages, page edges, and interior jacket color. Artists were asked to draw or paint on a menu, and those works are included in the book. As a fan of Ruth Rogers’ architect husband Richard, I was fascinated to read about the original restaurant space which fit all of nine tables but had large windows that overlooked the Thames and outdoor space for a garden. Richard Rogers created the plans for the space, and Rose Gray’s husband, David MacIlwaine, designed the restaurant logo. They’ve gone through lots of changes over the years and expanded the space, but they still operate as a family business. From the beginning, the intention was to create the “kind of food you eat in Italian homes,’ although neither Rogers nor Gray began as trained cooks. They offered what they knew and liked based on seasonal availability of ingredients. The chapters of the book include Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contori, and Dolci with lots of interspersed photos of the food, the restaurant, and menu art. Every dish looks like a plate of comfort welcoming you to stay a while. I could spend a long lunch enjoying the Zucchini Soup, the Pappa al Pomodoro, or the Summer Minestrone with some wine. The Spaghetti with Lemon and Basil sounds perfect for summer as does the Linguine with Fresh and Dried Oregano with lots of chopped cherry tomatoes. There are risotto, polenta, fish, and meat dishes and simply delicious vegetable recipes like Tuscan Roasted Potatoes with Artichokes. But, I got completely distracted by the desserts. There are very short but interesting ingredient lists. The famous Chocolate Nemesis Cake has exactly four ingredients in the cake itself. The Lemon Sorbet is made with bananas which is intriguing, and the Campari Sorbet with lemon and orange is another one I want to try. Up first, though, was the Strawberry Sorbet while I could get lovely, ripe, local strawberries. 

The recipe as written makes a lot of sorbet. I cut the quantities in half, and it completely filled my ice cream maker. (The recipe below is as it is written in the book.) So, as mentioned, I stared with one whole lemon, and I decided to use a Meyer lemon. It was cut into small pieces, and the seeds were removed. The chopped lemon went into the food processor with sugar and was chopped until combined well with the sugar. Hulled strawberries were added next and pureed followed by the addition of lemon juice. Next time, I would opt to use a blender rather than a food processor because the mixture becomes very thin and seeps out of the food processor. The mixture was chilled and then churned in an ice cream maker. After churning, the sorbet was left to firm up in the freezer for several hours. 

I love lemon desserts and strawberry desserts, and having the two flavors together was ideal. After tasting this sorbet, I wanted to flip back to the start of the sweets chapter and try everything in it. This, like all the recipes here, was a perfect example of how simple can be spectacular. 

Strawberry  Sorbet 
Recipe reprinted with publisher’s permission from River Cafe London: Thirty Years of Recipes and the Story of a Much-Loved Restaurant

Serves 10 
2 unwaxed lemons, roughly chopped 
2 pounds (900g) granulated sugar 
4 pounds (1.8kg) strawberries, hulled 
juice of 2 lemons 

Put the lemon pieces into a food processor with the sugar and pulse-chop until the lemon and sugar are combined. Add the strawberries and purée. Add about half of the lemon juice and stir to mix. Taste and add more lemon juice, if necessary—the flavor of the lemon should be intense but should not overpower the strawberries. 

Pour into an ice-cream machine and churn until frozen. 

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Vegan Queso and Bob Armstrong Dip

I spend a good amount of time talking about the food in Austin, but I can’t think of a simple way to describe it. I can tell you that whenever I’m out of town for a few days, I always look forward to getting home so I can grab a breakfast taco with spicy salsa. It’s been exciting to see the changes in our local food world since moving here over two decades ago. There are so many new flavors and cultural influences in our restaurant offerings now than there were then. And, there’s a full spectrum of quick and easy food from food trucks and casual spots to the creative dishes at fine dining places. I couldn’t wait to read how our city’s food was described and which recipes were included in the new book The Austin Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from Deep in the Heart of Texas by Paula Forbes. Of course, there’s barbecue and tacos and Tex-Mex, and there’s so much more. The recipes are mostly from restaurants both old and new, and a few are from the author. Brisket and carnitas make prominent appearances. But this is Austin, so there are also Tacos de Hongos made with a mix of mushrooms and poblano strips and Butternut and Goat Cheese Chile Relleno topped with pistachio cream and pomegranate arils. The Texas Standards chapter moves from The Broken Spoke’s Chicken Fried Steak with Cream Gravy to Contigo’s Okra with Walnuts. One of the New Austin Classics recipes I want to try is the Grilled Quail with Green Mole from Lenoir. There’s a chapter for Breakfast and Brunch that includes a breakfast taco primer with plenty of information for making your own. At home, I tend to start with corn tortillas and fill them with scrambled local farm eggs and whatever vegetables are in season, but they’re extremely customizable. It’s no surprise to see margaritas and the Mexican Martini in the Drinks chapter, but I was also delighted to find one of my favorite Juiceland orders there as well, the Wundershowzen Smoothie made with spinach, natural peanut butter, and hemp protein powder. There are also salsas and baked goods, and happily the Banana Pudding is a made-from-scratch version from Daniel Vaughn at Texas Monthly. As I was deciding what to cook first, I kept coming back to the Bob Armstrong Dip from Matt’s El Rancho. It’s a classic Tex-Mex restaurant, and queso finds its way to almost every diner’s table. Bob Armstrong, a former Texas land commissioner, was a regular at the restaurant and requested something new and different on one occasion. Queso topped with guacamole and beef taco filling was the new creation served just for him, and now it’s on the menu with his name on it. In the recipe head note, there’s a suggestion for making a vegetarian version with pinto beans instead of beef taco filing. I had just cooked some pinto beans that were stored in my freezer so I liked that vegetarian direction, and then I took it one step further and made a vegan version of queso as well. 

The day I made this, I posted a photo to Instagram and asked if this was an Austin-sacrilege or quintessential-Austin? My defense is that the processed cheese-like product often used to make queso isn’t really cheese anyway, so why not make something completely from plants instead? I did a little searching and found a couple of vegan queso recipes (here and here) to use as starting points. The primary ingredients were soaked cashews and grated potato. My biggest worry was that I was going to end up with an unappetizing color. I added ancho powder and a pinch of turmeric to bring out the reddish-yellowish look of it. To start, unroasted cashews were soaked in water for several hours. A medium potato was peeled and grated. Olive oil was warmed in a saucepan, and diced onion and minced garlic were added. After cooking for a few minutes, the grated potato was added and stirred to prevent sticking. Cumin, ancho powder, granulated garlic, a pinch of turmeric, and a chopped chipotle in adobo were added. Last, the drained cashews were added. Once the vegetables were cooked through and tender, the mixture was transferred to a blender, and a little apple cider vinegar and some water were added before blending to a smooth puree. I let the blender run an extra minute to get it as smooth as possible. The queso was returned to the saucepan to sit over a low simmer to stay warm. Diced red bell pepper, diced roasted poblano, and diced seeded tomato were added. To serve, the queso was poured into a bowl and topped with a scoop of guacamole, seasoned pinto beans, sliced jalapeno, and chopped cilantro.

It’s a happy day in my kitchen when the smells of roasting poblanos, chopped garlic, fresh from the garden cilantro, and sliced jalapeno are mingling in the air. It automatically makes me thirsty for tequila with lime juice. This loaded queso was a meal in itself with lots of chips for dipping. The texture matched that of regular queso, and the flavors hit all the right notes. And, those are just some of the flavors I love in Austin restaurant food and at home. 

Vegan Queso 
Note: The queso recipe in the book includes all the dip components with instructions for the beef taco filling and guacamole. The queso itself, in the book, is made with shredded American cheese. The following recipe is the Vegan Queso I chose to make for a plant-based version of Bob Armstrong Dip. 

3 tablespoons olive oil 
1/4 cup diced onion 
1 cup peeled and grated potato 
3 cloves garlic, minced 
1/2 teaspoon cumin 
1 teaspoon ancho powder 
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic powder 
pinch turmeric powder 
1 cup soaked, unroasted cashews (soak cashews in advance for several hours) 
1 chipotle in adobo, chopped 
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar 
1 cup water 
salt and pepper to taste 
3 tablespoons diced red bell pepper 
3 tablespoons diced roasted poblano 
3 tablespoons diced, seeded tomato 

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the grated potato and garlic, and cook while stirring to prevent the potato from sticking to the pan. Continue to stir and cook until the vegetables become tender. Add the spices, drained cashews, and chipotle and stir to combine. Cook for another two minutes. Transfer mixture to a blender, and add vinegar and water. Puree in the blender until completely smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. 

Transfer the queso mixture from the blender back to the saucepan, and add the diced bell pepper, poblano, and tomato. Heat over a low simmer just to keep warm until serving. For vegetarian Bob Armstrong Dip, serve topped with guacamole, seasoned pinto beans, sliced jalapeno, and cilantro and with tortilla chips for dipping.

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